“How long did you think you could conceal her nature beneath a fountain?” the leader asked Madame Astranzia contemptuously, even as he viciously kicked in the door to the Vermilion Room, the lovers’ haven of choice for that evening.
The normally-genteel doyenne bristled with outrage as she replied, “You are mistaken, I assure you; and you will regret this violation of my place of business! Your superior is a frequent guest here—”
As Astranzia thus loudly attempted to stall for time, Nicolas was already in motion, having thrust Sorrow to the far corner of the room and leapt across, still unclothed, to retrieve his previously cast-aside blades. For a moment, when the battle was first joined, it almost seemed that he might win, so experienced a fighter was he… but he was naked, and they were in armor; and he was weak with love and sudden, sick terror while they were strong with conviction and duty; and there simply were too many of them, in the end. It was the fourth or fifth soldier that ran him through, piercing the unprotected flesh of his stomach and spattering the hectic walls of the Vermilion Room with the brighter crimson stain of freshly-spilled blood.
And the courtesan called Sorrow erupted in flame.
It began with her eyes, the eternal solemn darkness of them turning suddenly bright enough to elicit answering sparks from the exposed swords and cuirasses of polished steel massed before the narrow doorway. From there the blaze grew quickly—so quickly!—barely giving her own flowing hair time enough to rise, halo-like, in the air before crisping into soot; turning her skin to burnished bronze and then to purest fire as it devoured her face, arms, torso, feet; making of her a living effigy, at once glorious and terrible and indisputably Wild. And from her body the conflagration spread all but instantaneously—in a moment scarcely more than the moment between heartbeats—outward, ever outward.
The Vermilion Room was engulfed before any save Madame Astranzia could think to turn and flee. Even she was not quick enough to slip out the door—yet the flames did not touch her, nor the grievously-wounded Nicolas, nor any of the courtesans of that incomparable and ill-fated House. But the other soldiers burned, so swiftly and absolutely that they had not time even to utter a cry before they were seared to ash in their armor; and even the extraordinary stone walls, presumably proof against all but the most outward ravages of extreme heat, were lit and consumed as though they were flimsy as mere parchment. And the once-green lawn blackened and charred to powder; and the conflagration grew, and grew, and grew.
“My name is Malaya,” said the woman once known as Sorrow, before she became indistinguishable from the rest of the burning.
Velvet healed me, of course, when we found one another outside the House at the smoldering break of day—after which she, Astranzia, and the remaining disheveled courtesans fled to the compass points, to avoid being captured for complicity in the cataclysmic debacle. Even so, the injury and my unblemished record were sufficient to attain the honorable discharge I later sought—or perhaps the bureaucrats were merely all too occupied to intervene over a trifle such as mine, troubled as they were with the complexities of transferring the seat of governance to the new capital at Aylanar.
In recent years, they have been more troubled still; struggling, for one, against the self-proclaimed “true” Emperor, who has mustered an upstart militia of his own in the once-echoing ruins of the cindered old court.
For another, even a retired officer such as myself has managed to catch wind of the inadequately-suppressed rumors—that numerous SkyWild slaves have been escaping from isolated ships at sea, aided by an inexplicable band of renegade Wild who are led, it is recounted, by a bald yet inarguably beautiful woman, with skin of bronzed honey, and eyes marked even in triumph by some fathomless, ineffable grief.
It is further said that she is attended, among others, by a girl-child of twelve or so years, who carries their company aloft upon winds of her own creation; who calms the oceans simply by speaking to the waters in a strange, susurrant tongue; who breaks the crafted chains of Cantment with a gesture once thought dead and gone with the last of the hunted EarthWild. She is believed to be the bald woman’s daughter; for though her hair is long and lustrous—charcoal-dark—her skin is of a similar, if slightly lighter, honeyed hue.
But I like to imagine that she has my eyes: illuminated, yet not consumed, by sorrow.
This story was originally published in Dean Alfar's Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, on sale now at Comic Quest and better bookstores.Check out the rest of the posse!